Ethnic diversity and social cohesion in Melbourne.

Author:Healy, Ernest

Robert Putnam has recently published research showing that, in the United States, higher levels of ethnic diversity are associated with lower levels of social capital. Volunteering is a key indicator of social capital. Data from the 2006 Australian census show that, in Melbourne, migrants from non-English-speaking countries (NESCs) are less likely to have volunteered in the previous 12 months than are migrants from the main English-speaking-countries or people who were born in Australia. This association holds when income, time of arrival and English proficiency are controlled for. But in areas that are very ethnically diverse levels of volunteering are not only low for the NESC-born, they are also low for the Australia-born.


Since the 1980s, there has been an orthodox view amongst Australian government, political and intellectual leaders that promoting Australian society as multi-ethnic or multicultural is beneficial. The benefits are variously identified as economic, cultural and humanitarian in nature.

Multicultural advocates frequently imply that ethnic diversity, if managed positively through a pro-active multicultural policy, will result in a socially cohesive, harmonious society. The view that ethnic diversity and multicultural policy provide a sound basis for social cohesion in a rapidly changing and increasingly unstable global context continues to have wide support amongst Australian intellectuals. (1)

But does Australia's ethnic diversity lead to a stronger, more cohesive society? This article explores one aspect of social cohesion--volunteering. It has been prompted by the availability of data on volunteering provided by the 2006 census. This was the first Australian census to include questions on unpaid work, including a question on voluntary work. Census respondents were asked to indicate whether they had, in the previous twelve months, spent 'any time doing voluntary work through an organisation or group'. Respondents were instructed to exclude any paid work, work done for a family business, or work done in order to qualify for a government benefit.


Robert Putnam's work highlights the relevance of voluntary work as an indicator of social capital. He posits a strong relationship between a community's sense of solidarity and the vibrancy of associational life or patterns of civic participation. (2) A central concept in Putnam's social research is 'social capital', the capacity of communities to benefit from the social networks and norms of reciprocity and trust that are generated from the daily experience of social interaction between individuals. (3)

He focuses on volunteering because it involves direct social engagement with others and goes beyond impersonal philanthropy, such as donating money. In the US context, however, Putnam notes that these two forms of altruism are linked; people who volunteer also tend to give money for charitable purposes. Volunteering is '... among the strongest predictors of philanthropy and vice versa'. (4) In turn, volunteering is also associated with other altruistic activities, such as donating blood.

Based on research conducted during the 1990s, Putnam concluded that the quality of public life and civic engagement in the US was in a state of serious decline. On a range of indicators of civic engagement, both political and private, such as involvement in local clubs, religious organisations and grass roots political activism, community participation was waning. His research pointed to changes in family structure, suburban sprawl, the privatisation of leisure activity and the passing of the generation of people who were bought up during the intensely patriotic era of World War II and its immediate aftermath, as the underlying causes of this decline. He also speculated that a similar decline of social capital may be underway in other advanced democracies. (5)

Putnam's most recent research highlights an additional and controversial dimension of the decline in social capital--ethnic diversity. Contrary to the expectation of those who argue that contact between people from different cultures overcomes initial disquiet and engenders trust, Putnam's evidence suggests that ethnic diversity and social solidarity are negatively correlated. He writes that: 'immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital', at least in the short to medium-term. (6) This does not mean, however, that cultural heterogeneity is likely to engender overt inter-ethnic hostility directly. Rather, what he observes is a 'withdrawal from collective life', a 'distrust' of neighbours, less volunteering, a decline in charitable behaviour and less propensity to work on community projects--even within one's own ethnic group. (7) It follows from Putnam's observations that an absence of overt conflict between different ethnic groups cannot be taken as evidence of social cohesion as some commentators have recently suggested. (8)


There has been increasing interest in Australia in volunteering as a potential indicator of social cohesion and well-being, by academics and by government authorities at local, state and national levels. For example, in 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) published Voluntary Work, Australia, which consisted of an extensive range of statistical information based on a survey included as part of the 2006 general social survey. The ABS recognised the significance of volunteer work in relation to social cohesion in the following terms:

Most states and territories are encouraging engagement in voluntary work in their strategic plans for social development. Voluntary work meets needs, expands opportunities for democratic participation, personal development and recreation within a community and helps to develop and reinforce social networks and cohesion. (9) The survey defined voluntary work similarly to the 2006 census and found that about 34 per cent of the Australian population aged over 18 years volunteered during the twelve months prior to the survey. The survey also found that volunteering was more common outside of capital cities and that this tendency was more marked between the metropolitan and non-metropolitan populations in Victoria and New South Wales. It found that differences in volunteering rates were linked to life stage, labour force status, occupation, level of educational achievement, income and birthplace. With regard to birthplace, the survey found that Australia-born persons were more likely to volunteer than overseas-born persons. Amongst the latter group, however, persons born in the main English-speaking countries (MESCs) were more likely to volunteer than those born in non-English-speaking countries (NESCs). (10) The respective rates of volunteering found for persons from these three birthplace groups were 36.2, 28.9 and 25.9 per cent. (11)

In a 2004 statewide survey, entitled Indicators of Community Strength at the Local Government Area level in Victoria, the Department of Community Services (DVC) explored volunteering rates in the context of its agenda for 'building and supporting' communities that:

... encourage participation: creating opportunities for increased participation and volunteering in community activities--social, recreational, sporting, cultural, learning, economic and civic. (12) The Department, however, chose to ignore the implications of its findings, one of which was that areas with high concentrations of persons born in NESCs showed low volunteering rates. (13)

Figure 1 (prepared by the author) shows this relationship. It plots the proportion of DVC survey respondents in Melbourne local government areas (LGAs) (14) who answered 'yes' to the question 'do you help out as a volunteer' against the proportion of persons born in NESCs (as at the 2001 census).


Although recent Australian research challenging the idea that...

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